Housekeeping Note: Theanine’s Guest Editorial on High Fidelity

Just tidying things up… (photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash)

Just a quick housekeeping note.

Last December, Theanine wrote a detailed, insightful analysis titled High Fidelity—What Went Wrong? on his Medium account. I liked it so much that I asked permission to repost it as a guest editorial to this blog, and Theanine graciously agreed.

However, it can be difficult to keep two versions of any document properly synchronized, and Theanine has asked me to remove the copy on my blog, and point back to his Medium blogpost instead. So this morning, I have done so.

The stub of the original guest editorial on my blog now redirects readers to Theanine’s original Medium post.

It is an excellent write-up, and if you haven’t read it yet, go over to Medium and do so, thanks!

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Guest Editorial by Galen: The Future of Sansar

Note: As I promised in this update to my most recent blogpost, here is a very timely guest editorial by Galen, someone who was a very active content creator and programmer in Sansar. We agreed that, under the circumstances, it would be better to publish this guest editorial sooner rather than later.

Given my frankly codependent three-year relationship history with Sansar (and yes, codependent is the most apt word I would use to describe it), I think it best that I step back completely from writing about Sansar, or rejoining the official Sansar Discord. However, I will make my blog available to other writers like Galen who wish to write guest blogposts—editorial or otherwise—about Sansar. (I do reserve my rights as blog owner to veto any blogpost submissions I consider unsuitable.)

All the images used to illustrate this guest editorial were taken and submitted by Galen.


The future of Sansar

A Guest Editorial by Galen

Sansar is dead. Everyone else was afraid to say it. So I’ll say it. And there it is.

No. I’m not an insider. Yes. I’m speculating. Take this editorial as the opinion of someone who has been on the outside for a while now.

“Congratulations! You’ve been selected to be among the first to create social VR experiences with Sansar.” That’s how the July 6th 2017 email to me began. I spent a few thousand dollars ordering a fast gaming PC and an HTC Vive. I set up my account and logged in as soon as I got those delivered and configured. Within a couple days I had my first door opener script in the store as a freebie. I quickly built a little scripting empire with loads of freebies and eventually for-sale products. Not to mention doing countless hours of free mentoring and paid consulting. I met some of the most talented 3D artists ever. I couldn’t believe how much talent was already there before I even arrived for the closed beta.

I knew about the other social VR worlds emerging. I dabbled a little. I specifically chose Sansar. Why? Because Linden Lab. They got virtual worlding right with Second Life. Many people mistakenly believe SL was first and so nobody else could compete later. This could not be further from the truth. There were quite a few successful virtual worlds available and even popular before SL wiped them all away. Let’s not forget Active Worlds. They were 10 years ahead of SL. Yet people migrated from AW to SL in droves in the early years. Why? Simple answer is that SL was better. I had lots of reasons to believe Linden Lab would do social VR better because they had the experience and knew the formula.

But did they? Was I the only person who was bothered that the majority of the Sansar team seemingly had little experience creating or maintaining Second Life? More than a few I talked to had barely visited SL. They were starting fresh. They might as well have been a new company competing with SL without the benefit of all that experience. Which it seems is effectively what they were.

And now it seems they’ve fired most of the Sansar team. Few lessons learned on the way in. Few lessons learned on the way out. This is how it looks to me.

I spent a lot of time defending LL in their decision making regarding Sansar. By the time I left in late 2018 I was done defending them. I still sympathize with everyone though. I like Ebbe Altberg, LL’s CEO. I like all the LL staff I met. Many of whom helped me in my own projects. I certainly like and respect the many friendly and talented residents of Sansar. Most of the early adopters seem to have fled like I did. I respect everyone who poured tons of passion and money into Sansar like I did. We did what we could to make Sansar a success in hopes that Sansar would propel us on to something amazing. And enduring.

So what went wrong? Lots of people have expressed differing opinions. I can’t address all of them. I’ll examine a few of them broadly. But I want to focus on my own. I have a solid idea of what I think went wrong. And a solid idea of what I think LL should do going forward. They can profit from Sansar yet.

So why do I think Sansar is dead? As far as I can tell LL has eliminated its Sansar development team. As with most business ventures, if Sansar is not moving forward then Sansar is moving backward. This is the same move High Fidelity made shortly before shutting down their project. LL most likely will not shut down their servers anytime soon. It probably doesn’t cost them much to store all the experiences we created. As I write this there are only 16 publicly visible instances active with visitors. That shouldn’t cost very much in AWS fees. So there’s no real reason for LL to shut down its functional system. Nor thus to announce an actual end to Sansar.

But now Sansar is a zombie. It seems to be on autopilot. Maybe a few people left to maintain it. And probably a few other people to continue preparing for some planned official events. Again, this is my speculation.

If Sansar is not really dead then why stop development? Because it has failed to thrive. It’s that simple. LL put a lot of money and effort into creating and promoting Sansar. But it did not take off. Not like Second Life did. Not even close.

So why did the one succeed and not the other? Lots of explanations have been floated. Most of the ones I’ve heard revolve around technical deficiencies. The avatar isn’t very sophisticated or customizable. You can’t work together on building a scene. You need a beefy computer to run Sansar. And it has to be a PC. As a software engineer I can sympathize with how frustrating these sorts of complaints can be. But I don’t think they were ever the fundamental problem. Why not? Because SL would never have taken off by this same reasoning. The technical platform wasn’t really better than some of its competitors who had many years’ head start on SL. And it was very buggy in the early years, even after its explosion in popularity.

One thing SL had in those early days was a bold and innovative development team. Philip Rosedale led a freewheeling process that churned out big new features every week, it seemed. They were never finished. They were buggy. And they were cool. That had changed by late 2007. A new management team and process traded limber speed coding for cumbersome quality engineering. This wasn’t all bad. They managed to mostly end the grey goo attacks. And many other forms of griefing. They tightened up a lot of loose nuts and bolts. But they also brought the rapid pace of feature development to a near halt.

I think LL brought that same dreary spirit of sluggish development to its bold new experiment in Sansar. They had such a good starting point. But can anyone really say that they thought the slow drip of minor feature updates was anything like SL’s early days? Were we really better off with timid releases that had fewer bugs than we were with a gusher of crazy experiments that regularly crashed sims and clients in SL’s heyday? I know a lot of creators and users of Sansar complained about bugs when we found them. But I think this is a little shortsighted of us. They didn’t hinder SL’s growth at all. They shouldn’t have hindered Sansar’s either.

I’ve argued many times that commerce was the real driver of Second Life’s success. It’s one thing to offer someone a product they like. It’s another to offer them a product they can profit from. Whether with money, prestige, or any other thing. Second Life introduced the ability for creators to govern how their creations are used through permissioning. And they created a frictionless currency that eventually enabled creators to exchange their earned lindens for US dollars and some other real-world currencies. In my opinion nothing was more important than this set of innovations.

Yes Sansar eventually had these features. Kinda. Sorta. They even introduced an innovative mechanism for creators to earn ongoing royalties as downstream creators sold their incorporated components. But in my opinion they simply failed in this critical area. They were slow to introduce the sansar dollar currency. They took way too long making it so you could directly pay people in sansars. And as far as I can tell they still have not made it possible for users to pay scripted in-world machines for services. Like paying for an hour in an amusement park. Or paying a tip jar at a concert that splits revenue with the house. And they haven’t enabled scripts to pay those machines or pay into users’ accounts directly. Like auto-payment of recurring fees like rent. Or wages for employees.

I don’t think I can really blame Linden Lab for this. I don’t think LL would be allowed to create the linden currency and its market in today’s regulatory environment. They shut down the alternative currency exchanges in part to comply with stricter banking regulations that emerged ostensibly to combat money laundering and other ills. This is probably the main reason LL was so slow in introducing the Sansar dollar and in making it easy to use. This is almost certainly a significant factor influencing other virtual worlds. It may well be why High Fidelity opted for a quasi-independent cryptocurrency. Not strictly owning the transaction ledger probably exempted them from SEC reporting requirements. This could be what’s stalling VRChat’s virtual economy too. In this sense Second Life is grandfathered into something that can’t be easily built from scratch today.

It doesn’t help that the Sansar dollar is not at all frictionless as a currency. They charge a lot to buy Sansar dollars. They charge a lot to sell Sansar dollars. They charge a lot to buy things with Sansar dollars. They charged a lot to give the gift of Sansar dollars. (It seems they eliminated this fee eventually.) I spent a lot of time defending LL’s need to profit from their platform. And I understand why it would be hard to introduce or increase fees later in time. But I think it is impossible to overstate how important the nearly frictionless (and fee-less) use of lindens is to SL’s ongoing success. Hundreds of millions of US dollars in perhaps billions of annual transactions attests to it.

CORRECTION: It seems my information is old. Apparently LL no longer takes a cut from from gifts. It seems they only now charge for store sales, cashing out, and for transferring from your USD balance to PayPal.

The inability of people to easily use their lindens to buy things in Sansar is arguably one of the other opportunities LL missed. I’m sure plenty of the creators in SL who dabbled in Sansar would have gladly spent some of their SL-earned capital in Sansar if they could. But let’s expand the scope of this. It makes way more sense when you realize that many of those same creators really wanted an easy way to bring their creations into Sansar. And many regular users wanted to port their inventories. I’m not going to argue that this would have been easy to implement. In fact I argued early on that this was a bad idea for many reasons. Sansar was its own new thing. It deserved a clean break from the downsides of SL’s old technology. And intellectual property owners in SL deserve a say in whether their goods can be ported anywhere else.

But I think it’s time to reconsider this idea. If Sansar is dead then Linden Lab needs to decide what to do with its development budget going forward. Exactly who didn’t come to Sansar? Why, Second Lifers. Who were looking for Second Life 2.0. Which they were told Sansar was not. So it’s obvious what they want. They want SL 2.0. They almost got it in High Fidelity. But LL is uniquely positioned to do this the right way. It’s a compromise way. Something between the clean break of Sansar and the tepid development path SL has been on for over a decade now.

I gave the following proposal for what to do if Sansar failed in another guest editorial in 2018. Let’s explore that proposal a little more here.

The heart of my proposal is to create a new technology platform and brand it as Second Life 2. The critical thing to do differently from the Sansar project is to make it so it is at least somewhat compatible with SL. The most crucial thing to share is users’ identities. Followed by their bank accounts. No separate accounts. All the same as now. Everything else is negotiable. This should not be.

Next up would be the grid. SL2 would exist within the same space as SL1, the current grid. I don’t necessarily mean that an SL2 sim would have to be exactly 256 meters squared like SL1’s sims. One option would be for them to be some multiple of that size. For example a 1024 x 1024 SL2 sim would occupy 4 SL1 sim slots. The SL1 grid would need some upgrades to be compatible and to make it relatively easy for users to cross from one grid to the other. And maybe a better option is just to punt by creating some sort of grid-to-grid teleport system. The SL2 grid can be like a parallel world where you simply cannot “see” across the divide. Or maybe only through specially designed portal windows/doors. That sort of wizardry can be created down the road and wouldn’t be required on day one. The only critical requirement is that a user can travel fairly easily between SL1 and SL2 sims.

What about avatars? Do they need to be the same? I would argue that they shouldn’t be. The avatar that Sansar had introduced wasn’t all that bad. It had quite a few solid innovations. And it was arguably easier to dress up than SL’s arcane mess is today. Maybe this would be worth starting over with lessons learned from SL and Sansar too. Maybe some sort of hybrid that would allow skins and some other avatar assets from SL1 to be ported to SL2. Or not. I do believe that SLers will tolerate the fact that they have to create and outfit new avatars in the new grid. I think this initial irritation will be far from a deal-breaker for them. In fact it will likely spur a whole new fashion race to cater to SL2 without killing the SL1 fashion industry. Spend some time developing the basis for this. Don’t hack this part.

One dubious design choice in SL is that there is effectively no limit to how computationally expensive an avatar can get. I proposed in Sansar to introduce a mesh complexity budget to allow users to have as many mesh clothing attachments as they wish by balancing how rich each attachment is against what else they wish to wear. I recommend something similar for SL2 avatars. If they go over that budget they start paying fees for the extra weight. And SL2 sim owners should be able to limit entry of avatars based on their complexity.

What about VR and all the visual glitz of Sansar? Yes! Definitely. Do it. I think almost everyone agreed that Sansar looked great. Just don’t do it at the expense of the live editing experience. I know there are lighting and other optimizations that come from compiling a scene in Sansar. There is an easy compromise though. Selectively bypass or even disable those optimizations during building. Do background compilation as the scene gets updated. If SL users can understand progressive loading of sims then they can understand progressive baking of lighting and sound optimizations. And that’s another thing. Let’s accept that users want to start interacting with scenes as soon as possible. Progressive loading may have downsides for some use cases. But whole-scene loading has way more downsides for many casual uses. This is something you can have both ways though. It should not be hard to develop a progressive loading scheme that’s based on distance to the viewer. Things nearby load first. Then things slightly farther away. And so on. They’ll likely feel more like it’s loading faster. And then you could also allow SL2 sim owners to decide which of the two modes they prefer to require visitors to enter via. SL does have some prioritization to its loading order but it’s not strictly distance-from-you oriented.

One of Sansar’s most elegant features is its on-demand loading of scenes on the server side. I recommend that SL2 sims follow this model. Allow sim owners to decide whether to pay a premium for always-on service if they wish. But otherwise allow empty sims to auto-unload after a while of disuse. Make it owner-configurable how long that timeout period is. And have those sim owners pay only for active time.

One interesting possibility for SL2 sims would involve a radically different notion of what a parcel is. Let’s say you have land leased in large square units like in SL1. But let’s say when you parcel that off into smaller chunks you are really creating separate sims. The equivalent of whole scenes in Sansar. Each parcel-sim would run on its own processor just like a scene in Sansar. But you’d still be able to see that parcel as part of a larger property. The owner of that larger property could charge the parcel owner rent for the privilege of being included in their valuable neighborhood.

One problem with sims that don’t stay online 24/7 comes when you are in one sim and the neighboring one is offline. What do you see in that case? Although it’s not perfect here is one proposal. Every sim gets stored as a model already. In SL1 sims they are dynamic. In SL2 they could be static models. When you are in one SL2 sim you could look out far into the distance and see potentially hundreds of scenes on sims (parcels) that are currently offline. How? By having your client access the static models of those sims instead of trying to talk to active neighboring sims the way SL works now. Those sims’ models can be stored in different level of detail (LOD) versions to suit their apparent size to the viewer.

This is all heady stuff. Lots of coding work to do some of the above. One option is to just go with separate scenes like in Sansar for the first release of the SL2 grid and evolve more integrated approaches over time. Again, SLers will tolerate this just fine.

Practically speaking, the SL2 model is going to require a hybrid SL client that contains both SL1 and SL2 codebases. The Firestorm client has managed to keep pace with and largely outcompete the main client from LL. So I imagine that team would do just fine in collaboration as the SL core team develops the early prototype client.

Should SL2 require a high end gaming machine? Or be dumbed down to work well with older machines? I don’t think it has to be dumbed down. But probably the best answer is to let users decide how far they want to go with their computing hardware. The budget-conscious user who just wants to hang out with friends could ramp down the graphics settings to suit their old machines. And power users could ramp the settings all the way up for their photo shoots and VR applications. Over time most users will gradually adopt more performant machines to enjoy all of SL at its best.

So why bother doing this SL2 stuff in the first place? The answer is simple. The goal should be to phase out SL1 over time. SL1 and SL2 would likely coexist for quite a few years. The SL2 grid would start out as a curiosity to many. And a promising place to try new artistic and business endeavors. Especially if the SL2 grid is truly VR capable. Think of these parallel grids as analogous to how SL has both voice and text-chat modes. Many users exclusively favor one or the other. Some use both interchangeably. No doubt the same will be true for the parallel SL1 and SL2 grids. But if most of the new development is focused in SL2 then most people will gradually spend most of their time there. Most won’t even notice the gradual change in their behaviors.

But again, why bother doing this? Why not just keep upgrading SL as it is today? This editorial is already too long so I won’t go into detail. I’ll just say that SL is held back by some of its early design decisions. Most of them made lots of sense in the early days. And now they weigh SL down. The bottom line of those choices is that they keep SL somewhat expensive for many users. They require LL to maintain an overly large hardware investment. They limit designers’ choices. They keep SL looking a bit cartoonish. They prevent many realtime gaming dynamics. They prevent VR adoption. They make it difficult for larger corporations to form to bring ever more grand creations into existence. In short the technical limits are holding SL back.

I and some others have argued that LL made a mistake by not allowing Sansar to have adult content and activities. This would be another benefit of building a parallel SL2 grid. LL would not have to introduce different rules for both grids. The existing culture of SL should be allowed to flourish in the same way in SL2 as it comes online. I know that stuff may scare away some media companies with deep pockets and an aversion to anything more risque than Toy Story. But it’s also apparent that if LL actually banned adult content from SL then SL would immediately vaporize. It’s an important part of SL’s success.

And more generally it is Second Life’s residents who have made SL such a success. Most of them have been unhappy with the overall feeling that Sansar was a waste at best and a betrayal at worst. I think they are shortsighted in this. But there it is. Their opinions matter. I’m convinced that developing a Second Life 2 grid as a parallel to the current grid and allowing users to be themselves in both is a recipe for success. And not just in keeping SL afloat in the stagnant growth pattern it seems to have held for over a decade. This would very likely make SL flourish anew. This would be a real success for social VR. This would be what brings many of the SL refugees that populate VRChat back home.

I know I’m an outsider at this point. But I haven’t completely abandoned my wish to see Sansar succeed. I was actually hoping to create a virtual presence for my science fiction stories in Sansar. I was hoping there might be more opportunity for me to return someday to do so much more. But that’s probably not going to happen now.

There’s so much more I’d like to say. But this is a start for me. And hopefully it encourages a bigger discussion. I think it’s time to admit that Sansar is dead. But Second Life is alive and well. And ready for an SL2 project. One that respects the current investment hundreds of thousands of people still have in SL today. A couple years ago I didn’t think I’d be the one to say this. But I’ve changed my mind.


Thanks, Galen!

UPDATED! Guest Editorial by Theanine: High Fidelity—What Went Wrong?

I was planning to write up a detailed post-mortem blogpost about High Fidelity, when my friend Theanine wrote an excellent article on the same topic, and posted it to his Medium account today. Theanine wrote a well-argued, thoughtful essay, which is far, far better than anything I could have written myself, informed by his many years of working on the platform as a content creator, with his background as a game developer and a game artist.

Theanine very kindly gave me his permission to repost his work here as a guest editorial, along with his pictures.


Please note that Theanine has asked me to remove his guest editorial from here, and refer people to his original write-up on Medium. Thanks!

Guest Editorial: Dale Glass Reports from the VR Days Conference and Exhibition in Amsterdam

I was delighted to receive the following report from Dale Glass, who attended the VR Days Europe 2019 conference and exhibition held in Amsterdam from Nov. 13th to 15th, 2019. Here is Dale’s report in full:


VR Days is a VR convention and exhibition that took place in Amsterdam in November 13-15. I only had an exhibition ticket (full tickets are very expensive), so I can’t say anything about the talks.

First, a disclaimer: I didn’t go to VR Days intending to write a report on it, so it’s very possible that I got something wrong somewhere. I only started taking notes once I had enough thoughts brewing in my head that I realized I might as well write them on paper. I didn’t visit every single stand, though I did visit most of them, so it’s very much possible that I missed something very cool. Also, I’m not a reporter, nor an expert in all things VR.

With that out of the way, here’s my one word description of what I saw at VR Days: “Underwhelming”. I think now I am starting to see what John Carmack meant when he said he was “not satisfied with the pace of progress”. While I saw a fair amount of things that were interesting to me personally, there wasn’t a lot that made me really excited about the future. A fair amount of the exhibition seemed to be showing things from years ago, proofs of concept that may not go anywhere, and products in search of a market. There also were some very well done things for very specific corporate purposes that will likely take a long time to percolate into the consumer realm.

The exhibition wasn’t very lage and was rather lightly attended, apparently mostly by people working in the same industry. Most booths weren’t very busy, so I didn’t spend a lot of time in line. Attendance by enthusiasts without a business plan appeared to be very scarce. I managed to disappoint a record amount of people in two days. Conversations usually followed this formula:

Booth staffer: …and that’s our product made for corporate audiences that we sell for a lot of money. By the way, which company do you work for?

Me: We don’t do anything VR related, this is just a hobby for me.

Booth staffer: (disappointed) Oh.

An odd thing was the lack of polish. It seems the hardware manufacturers need to hire better software people, because the graphics tended towards being extremely basic, and in one case there was no sound where there were lots of reasons to have it. That’s not a huge deal overall, but if you’re going to battle hordes of zombies, being able to hear them behind your back would add a lot to the immersion. I’m not asking for AAA games here, but it’s odd that one of the best looking and most polished things was the app for VR meetings.

The more concerning issue is the lack of much for a consumer to look forward to. Judging by what was going on at this conference, VR appears to have retreated back into corporate space, and most good demos had a premise of “suppose you have a factory”, “suppose you have a technician in the field”, or “here’s a very expensive lens or laser scanner”.

The bits most appealing to a consumer were the arcade games, Pimax (which are releasing an updated version of the “8K” headset), and the amount of hand and eye tracking demos which suggest there’s a lot of work being done in the area and that something is going to percolate down eventually, but it’ll probably take a while. Hand tracking was done either through specialized headsets with a lot of cameras, or special gloves. Eye tracking was very focused on medical and research applications.

Then, it just might not be a conference with the right focus to interest consumers in the first place. I’ve not attended any other VR focused conferences, so I can’t say how it compares. Even if I say it’s a tad underwhelming it was still very enjoyable. I got to meet online friends, to talk to interesting people, to play with some very expensive hardware, and to see what the industry is working on. Overall, my time and money was very well spent.

Booth reviews

Tobii pro

They make eye tracking hardware and focus on things like consumer research, for telling where people look while walking through a supermarket, for instance. Not all their work is VR related, they have transparent glasses that just have an iris tracker as one of the options for example.

VR for rehab

They use VR and a vest with arm trackers to assist in rehabilitation. Not being a doctor, I can’t say how useful this is, but VR in combination with the right tracking would seem to have good potential in helping people learn what movements they need to make, making as many corrections as needed, and tracking everything in great detail, while the patient is in the comfort of their own home.

KOC University

I tried a demo that was supposed to be a psychosis simulator. This failed to work. To be fair, it wasn’t part of their plan to showcase it (I noticed it on a pamphlet and asked about it). We did have an interesting conversation, though. I wondered why see-through AR glasses like Magic Leap are nowhere to be seen at VR Days, even at booths that have “AR” in the description. The answer I got is that they’re too expensive, don’t work in bright light, and that devices like the Quest probably made them much less relevant.

Sensiks

You sit in a sound-dampening booth wearing a headset, and watch a 360 video, while heaters and a scent releasing system provide some ambiance to simulate the wonders of Mother Nature. According to the rep, “it has many purposes” and “it’s a medium”. I personally think it’s a solution in search of a problem. There can’t be that much of a market for this kind of thing. It might find a home in a few spas, though.

Timmersive

They had prototypes of simple arcade games – submarine periscope simulator, pinball simulator, and so on. The pinball’s VR part was very good (might have been Pinball FX2 VR). The physical prop worked mostly fine though sometimes it seemed to miss key presses. The periscope prop and associated VR game was very much a proof of concept and reminescent of 80s soviet arcade machines due to the extreme simplicity of the gameplay. Overall, not bad and it has potential, but need a lot of polish still.

NLR

They had a 3D printed helicopter cabin, and optical hand tracking that’s precise enough that it can tell what you’re pressing without needing any functional hardware in the cockpit. That is very impressive and I think has a lot of potential – it means anybody with access to a 3D printer could easily make their own props for whatever function happens to be needed, and then interact with a physical object while in VR. The switches I pressed were clicky though, so they could have been connected to something, but the hand tracking looked good nevertheless.

VRTL

They offer courses in VR content creation. Hard to say much about that without trying it myself.

Varjo

Something related to photogrammetry, optical hand tracking and eye tracking. The booth looked very popular, but unfortunately I didn’t make it in.

Artsteps

Virtual museum builder. You build some walls, put paintings on them, and people can walk around. It’s so boring that I wouldn’t download such a thing even if it was free. It also doesn’t appear to offer anything over something like Sansar or High Fidelity. It might have something of a market at schools or museums, but there’s little excitement here for a consumer.

Another World

A huge booth was dedicated to a VR arena in Moscow. They say the installation can’t be replicated at a convention so all it’s doing there is to tell you there’s a very cool thing in Russia, and that they’re planning to expand.

Manus VR

Glove based hand tracking. Quite good performance. They have a demo where you have to assemble an engine by picking up parts and placing them in the right spots. Not consumer level tech, but it seems very promising. I enjoyed the experience and can’t wait for this kind of thing to make it into the consumer realm.

IMEC Netherlands

They have an EEG integrated into a headset as well as wearable watches to gather the heartbeat rate. They mentioned a possible applicability to children, but the current EEG consists of a bunch of hard and rather pointy electrodes I doubt children would be very happy to wear. They also said there’s nothing that can be easily bought at present.

They were having trouble with performing a demo because making Bluetooth connections was difficult with all the interference at the convention, but I got to test their EEG headset after a bit of trying. I measured a 0.75 in “valence” and -0.81 in “arousal”, which if I understood their descriptive text correctly means that I was enjoying myself a lot, but struggling to stay awake. I would definitely disagree with the later, since I got plenty of sleep, had some coffee, and it was just about noon at that point.

VR Medics

Another headset with an EEG, this time a far more comfortable looking one. This one has only flat contact electrodes, so it likely has more trouble making good contact. No demo, unfortunately.

Besides the EEG, they also have an eye tracker and use a custom Daydream headset. Given that Daydream was just discontinued by Google, it would seem they will need to retool a bit.

Somnium Space

Virtual world that feels rather similar to Second Life in that it’s a single world subdivided into parcels of land and overall functions in a similar manner. They have an external editor, an experimental Quest client that worked with a good framerate and used the same content with a lower level of detail, and insist the blockchain is very important to the whole deal. Figuring out how good it is in practice and the pros and cons would take a lot longer than a short test at a convention, but it seems functional, promising and well thought out.

AMA

They have single eye head mounted displays, as in a tiny monitor in front of one eye that covers part of your vision. This is a 100% commercial type project, where the glasses have a forward pointed camera that can transmit video and images to the home base, and they can assist in accomplishing some task, like fixing or replacing something. Seems useful for some applications, but there’s no VR at all, all the tech was available well before the Oculus Rift, and there’s nothing interesting to consumers.

Birdly

Birdly VR – The Ultimate Dream of Flying from Giant Screen Films on Vimeo.

A flying/swimming simulator where you have to lie on a mechanical contraption and move your arms to control the movement. It reminded me a bit of the racing segment of the Lawnmower Man movie. Quite fun, but very narrow purpose. It could work very nicely in an arcade, but the current incarnation isn’t the most comfortable. Also apparently this has been around for a few years.

Steinberg Media Technologies

Cubase + VR. You build a virtual environment then place sounds in it. Intended to assist in the production of movies and games. I’m no audio expert so I can’t tell how good this is, but it seemed cool and useful to me. If one is going to work on spatial audio, doing it in a 3D VR space seems to make a lot of sense, and probably makes the process a lot easier.

Vrgineers

Optical hand tracking. It worked so-so (they complained of interference from other stands), but I would say it’s an excellent start. The demo was a VR house where you can pick up some of the objects and move them around.

Cyberith Virtualizer

This one was quite the experience. The device being shown was the Cyberith Virtualizer Elite 2. It is made of a tilted, slippery platform and a ring to restrain the body. It’s used with slippery shoe covers, or one could just use the device wearing only socks. Climbing into the device has to be done very carefully, as it’s very slippery. The inclination is adjusted for each person. My personal impression once I was inside is that it feels like walking uphill while dragging along a bag tied with a rope to your waist. It didn’t feel very natural and turning in it was a bit odd. Then, this is definitely the sort of thing that you have to adjust just right and get used to, so it’s very possible that with more adjustment and practice I could have had better results.

The demo was a kind of safety demonstration where you are alone in a warehouse where something catches on fire, and need to put it out or just to get out in time. The graphics were very basic, but the scenario demonstrated the intended usage pretty well. Certainly, if you can escape a danger while having to drag a considerable weight around, doing it for real afterwards will be a breeze.

One significant upside is that it’s recognized as a controller by Steam, so supporting it should be quite easy. Unfortunately they didn’t have Skyrim at the expo to see how and if it works out of the box. That is really a pity, as although I understand it’s not a consumer oriented device I’ve long wanted to try an open world game with a VR treadmill.

Overall it’s very much an enterprise type of thing. The device is big, expensive, and takes getting used to. It probably gets better with time, but it doesn’t really feel natural at all, so it’s clear VR locomotion still has a very long way to go. It could have some use for arcade setups, but based on my experience environments where one can walk freely are far more comfortable even if the space where one can move is limited.

Vicon VR Arcade

One of the highlights of the convention. Definitely not a home type of installation, as it relied on dozens of cameras, a large space and wearing a backpack computer. But it tracks multiple people very well, they have prop weapons, and overall it works great. First I tried a demo where you just walk around and try different weapons and avatars. Moving in it feels a bit off, but isn’t bad at all.The props work great.

Then I tried the zombie game, where a team of 3 people fights against hordes of zombies. This was great, except the game wasn’t really polished and for some reason had no sound. But fortunately the software isn’t really important here. The big deal here is that they seem to have the hardware figured out very well. The tracking is pretty much flawless, and the gear is easy and quick to put on. Just pair it with a better game, and it’s going to be awesome!

Pimax

Pimax booth at VR Days (from their website)

The Pimax booth was a very popular one. I got to try a headset early on, but unfortunately it seems to have been the old “8K” model, and I didn’t get to try the newer version, as by that time they started giving people scheduled demos, and the list had grown to many hours long.

Regadless, I’m very glad that they’re around and still pushing forward. IMO headset resolution still needs improving, and Pimax appear to be at the forefront of that effort.

Plastic SCM

Source control for artists and VR. As far as I could gather the “VR” part is just that it’s made with game development in mind.

Actronika

They have a vest. “What does it do?,” I asked. “It vibrates” was the rather frank answer. The demo simulates a rain effect and there’s also a demo of burning alive in a broken elevator. While the demo itself was very underwhelming, the hardware itself does seem to have different areas that can be triggered, so it’s possible it could have been made much better use of. This could have a good future in arcade games. The Vicon people could probably make very good use of it.

Magic Horizons

This is a VR relaxation app. In the demo I tried you sit in the middle of a virtual meadow, watch the environment and shoot butterflies from your hands while soothing music plays. You can’t move, the water is completely static, and the butterflies oddly always overlap the world even when they should disappear when they go underground. They say this is because research indicated things like moving water would be distracting. I argued that when one sits by a river, the water flows and that’s part of the attraction. They seemed unconvinced.

The intended market is Human Resources departments. Personally, I’d rather HR give me some time off, or organize a trip somewhere nice.

TNO and VR Together

They had booths next to each other, both apparently used the same hardware, and both did the same thing. Weird.

They do a 3D capture of your body and insert it onto a VR environment. It looks like a very early proof of concept. You see yourself in huge voxels. Other people are seen as a very unrefined, full of holes mesh, because the system only sees you from one angle. Sometimes people look barely human.

VR Together first takes an image of the part of your face that will be covered by the headset, TNO doesn’t. VR Together had to align me manually with my 3D image, TNO had tape markings on the floor to ensure the chair was in the right place.

Overall, a barely working proof of concept so far and nowhere near being any good yet.

MeetinVR

MeetinVR (taken from their website)

Wow. I never thought I would be impressed by this kind of thing, but I guess there’s a first time for everything. This is software for VR meetings. That’s all it is, but it’s surprisingly good at what it does.

Recapping a bit, I’ve been in High Fidelity for some time, and I was there when it decided to shift focus towards virtual meetings. One of my reactions was “Virtual meetings? Come on, who needs that?”.

Bear in mind, I’m a long time fan of VR. I own the Oculus DK1 (contributed to the kickstarter), DK2, CV1 and Quest, so I have put a fair amount of time and money into it. Even then I recognize that VR doesn’t necessarily have to do everything. I work from home every week, participate in daily remote meetings, and never once I had thought “This would be much better in VR”. We use the webcam and screen sharing sometimes, and that seems perfectly adequate. VR would only seem to complicate the entire thing for no gain. Then I unexpectedly changed my mind.

MeetinVR is a seated experience. There’s a room with chairs in it and you can move from one place to another. The graphics are attractive, the avatars are customizable, and the sound works well. There’s a pen you can use to draw in the air or on a surface, it’s possible to share images, and there’s a web browser. Objects can be easily moved and resized with natural hand gestures. If you don’t need something anymore, you just throw it away, and it vanishes. Nothing particularly amazing, except that it’s just executed very well. The major hurdle is typing text in VR, for which if I remember right there’s voice recognition, besides a VR keyboard.

MeetinVR

They say they spoke to many companies to figure out what they wanted, and I think it shows: the result is very polished, very easy to use and has a few very well thought-out touches like being able to put a “can you hear me?” banner over your head that’s oddly missing from quite a few programs with a similar purpose. Everything seemed well designed, and to work as intended.

The new HiFi is going to face some tough competition here, because I didn’t see anything that was obviously lacking, and the current experience is already a good one. I’m still not sure VR meetings will catch on, but at the very least this managed to change my mind in that I no longer believe VR meetings are a stupid idea. In fact I would say that MeetinVR is not worse than doing them the usual way in most cases, and that there definitely are advantages to it. Placing objects in a 3D space, pointing at things, and drawing comes very naturally. I would say drawing in VR works much better than doing it with a mouse. For the bosses, the fact that VR effectively captures people’s attentions helps with ensuring people don’t tune out.

Overall, it doesn’t cure cancer, it doesn’t do anything amazing, but what it does, it does very well.


Thank you, Dale!